Since Don Sweeney replaced former General Manager Peter Chiarelli three years ago, the Bruins find themselves as serious Stanley Cup Contenders. The 37-15-8 and Bruins are in second place of the NHL Eastern Conference. Only five points separate the team from the first place Tampa Bay Lightning. In this article, we’ll cover three areas that are paying dividends for this year’s Black and Gold. Roster Overhaul; Since the teams successful Presidential Cup year in 2012 the Bruins have not gotten by the first round of the playoffs in three tries. With consecutive losses to Montreal and an early exit at the hands of Ottawa last season the Bruins now seem to have found an identity. The first order of business three years ago was to dismiss General Manager Peter Chiarelli. Since Chiarelli’s dismissal in 2015 Sweeney has completely turned the team around. Midway through last season, the club fired longtime coach Claude Julian. Julian was replaced by longtime Providence coach Bruce Cassidy. Cassidy responded by guiding the team back into the playoffs for the first time in two years. Despite a first_ round loss to the Senators. Despite an early exit, Bruin fans found a reason for optimism. A Mixture Of Youth And Veterans; Since Sweeney’s arrival, three year’s ago Bruins fans have seen the likes of Milan Lucic, Dougie Hamilton, Jerome Iginla, Chad Johnson and Reily Smith all depart. Enter Charlie McAvoy, Danton Heinen, Jake De Brusk, Anders Bjork, and Sean Kuraly. All have bought into Bruce Cassidy’s style of play and it shows on the ice every night. Only Tampa Bay, Nashville, Washington and Las Vegas have more points. The new faces seem to click with veterans David Krejci Patrice Bergeron, Adam McQuaid, David Pastrnak, and Tuukka Rask. If the chemistry and good coaching continue the Bruins may have an excellent chance of getting to the finals. Rotating Goalies; One of the biggest differences in this year’s success is the rotating of goaltenders. Veteran Tuukka Rask is having a great season 24-18 and a 2.21 GAA in 40 games while backup Anton Khudobin is 13-4- in 23 games with an impressive 2.41 GAA .Keeping both goaltenders fresh and sharp may play a big factor come playoff time. No matter what the end result is hockey is fun again on Causeway Street. The Bruins have their old swagger back. The Bruins are playing like the Black and Gold team fans are used to seeing. After a flurry of activity the past week Sweeney has acquired Rick Nash, Nick Holden, and Black Hawks forward Tom Wingel. If the chemistry continues then the dividends hopefully will be another Stanley Cup.
I bought the original story and it still might be true. When I originally wrote about it, I blamed Gary Bettman and the NHL for taking a backward step in international hockey by pulling out of this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. At the time I blamed it on the usual factor, American ignorance, and that this was another typical arrogant, ignorant business decision, one that snubbed a country that had recently raised the quality of its hockey team to at least the “B level” of play, a country of 50 million people who would be a splendid new market for international hockey and for the NHL itself. I condemned the NHL and did not give the motives for it anymore thought until what has recently happened.
As reported on many Internet websites, there was the current American Vice President, Mike Pence attending the opening ceremonies with a mandate by President Trump to stir up more trouble between the two Koreas. The President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in had been using the Olympics to reduce tensions between North and South Korea. In particular, Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un was made a special guest of honor.
This did not sit well with the Americans who have been trying to rein in Kim Jong-un and North Korea, one way or another, especially since the start of the Donald Trump administration. And it is Pence’s appearance and mission at the Winter Olympics that has made me think again about the NHL’s decision to withdraw from the South Korean Olympics. Did the Bettman and the NHL really want to do it? Or was there some secret pressure from the American government, perhaps even formal blackmail, that forced Gary Bettman and the NHL to take the decision they made?
First of all in some ways, this is old hat with me. When I was in university in the 1970s, a group of Americans gave a seminar, two years in a row which I attended about the assassination of John Kennedy. They brought clear copies of the Zapruder film, kept out of the United States for protection purposes, showed highly disturbing photos that could be used to prove the existence of a conspiracy, and formulated theories about who could be behind it.
Similarly, when 9/11 occurred, I would watch the Michael Moore film “Fahrenheit 9/11″ and even purchase another “conspiracy possible” dvd. I would note the little puffs of smoke that you still see when watching the World Trade Center buildings collapse, in proper order from the top down, suggesting that the way the buildings collapsed was a professional demolition job, actually caused by explosives planted much earlier in the buildings instead of “decoration” attacks by planes hijacked by “terrorists” to make things “look good”. So I will be the type of person who will tell you that Kennedy died because of a conspiracy and that all the evidence of 9/11 points to President Bush blowing up his own buildings in order to justify a war on Iraq.
The Americans have been masters in concealing the truth about these kind of things. The real decisions about who lives and who dies are made behind the scenes, behind closed doors out of sight. For example, when 9/11 occurred, media dissidents were conveniently fired or muzzled. Despite the recent releases of new information about the Kennedy assassination it is doubtful that the full truth is still known and it is a similar situation for 9/11. One such similar occurrence (not involving the United States) was suggested in the British miniseries “Fall Of Eagles”, when a rich “socialist” who wanted to have a Bolshevik revolution in Russia was actually brought into the presence of Kaiser William II in Germany to get permission to smuggle Vladimir Lenin, then living in exile in Switzerland, back into Russia by means of the famous “sealed railway car” trip through Germany. The Kaiser gave his reluctant assent but feared the consequences. Thus the decision to allow a Communist Russian Revolution to occur was actually made by the German Kaiser who needed to get Russia defeated and out of World War I.
If such backroom decisions and pressure were practiced on Gary Bettman and the NHL by the American government, so far as any decision to pull out of the 2018 Winter Olympics occurred, it is doubtful if the public will find out the truth for a long, long, time, if ever. Before Pence appeared at the Olympics, I had not given the possibility any thought, but when he appeared, it made me reconsider everything. And when thought of logically, there is a real possibility it might have occurred.
Why should Bettman, who has been actively trying to improve international hockey by bringing back the World Cup, allowing NHL regular season games to be played in Europe again, and playing exhibition games in China, suddenly take an extreme, negative decision that badly hurts international hockey? One of the reasons given is that the time zone of the South Korean Olympics is poor for American television ratings. But Bettman hinted that the NHL might go back to the next Olympic Games which will be held in Beijing China, the same time zone. So that excuse makes no sense. And why would Bettman who is a good businessman want to snub a potential great new market for the NHL of 50 million? That’s a poor business decision and Bettman is smarter than that. Why would the Commissioner who needs to see international hockey grow, snub a nation which has raised its standard of play to at least the “B level”?
Like the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 disaster, only a few people know the real truth. If such pressure occurred then Bettman, a few NHL insider intimates, plus representatives from the American government will know. As far as I know, nobody has asked them and if asked, they will probably deny it. As usual, this kind of event does not look good on America. To return the beginning of the article, the official story might be true… or it might not.
Sometimes one game tells the truth about an entire situation that nobody wanted to believe, that fans, players, owners, coaches, and management desperately did not want to admit. Arizona 6 Chicago 1 was one such game. To lose that badly to the worst team in the NHL can only mean one thing in Chicago: The greatest era in Blackhawks era is finally over and it’s time to rebuild.
Unless they are traded to other teams, there will be no more Stanley Cups for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marion Hossa (not playing this year), Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. For them, the next glorious moment will be their induction into the Hockey Hall Of Fame. Nobody wants to admit this. Nobody wants to believe that the invincibles who carried the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups are now mortal and can’t do it anymore.
It is not the coach or management’s fault. Coach Joel Quenneville, a proven Stanley Cup winning coach is still coaching the same way but he cannot prevent every key player getting old at the same time and that the new players Chicago has brought in are unable to accept a passed torch. A few years ago, this was Detroit’s situation and now they are in the midst of a thorough rebuild. Now it will be Chicago’s turn.
The revelation began with the unexpected shameful playoff sweep by Nashville, a team they used to beat easily in the post season, in the very first round of last year’s playoffs. Chicago had been leading the Western Conference last year and had been favored to play Pittsburgh in the Final, if not win the Stanley Cup. Not only was Chicago swept, but they were humiliated in the process. The Blackhawks have never recovered from the shock.
As when I was writing about the Detroit situation, it is not time to condemn or accuse but to salute. So far in the long history of the Chicago Blackhawks, this core of players has been the best team ever assembled. The closest Blackhawk team was the group built around the Bobby Hull-Stan Mikita combination. But they only won the Stanley Cup once – and that was when they were an underdog. For the rest of the Hull-Mikita era, the Blackhawks would pile up impressive regular season statistics (like today’s Washington Capitals) and then blow it in the playoffs. Hull and Mikita would set new individual scoring records. But teams like Toronto which had far less talent than the Blackhawks would win the Stanley Cup. A later team built around Denis Savard would accomplish nothing. The Blackhawks would have to wait nearly 50 years for a champion again.
But this team with Toews as its centerpiece would win. When the Pittsburgh Penguins built around the Crosby-Malkin axis and who were expected to dominate this era began to stumble, the Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings stepped into the breach and seized the Stanley Cup for themselves. They have squeezed the most they could get out of themselves while it was possible. All the players on this team who once won the Stanley Cup can retire knowing they got almost the maximum they could get. They can hang up their skates with some satisfaction. It is very different for one of their main rivals, the Vancouver Canucks – built around the Sedin brothers – and most of the other teams in the current NHL. Their players have passed through NHL history with nothing to show.
It is always sad when the end of an era is coming. The atmosphere changes and becomes depressing. Nobody likes losing. Players with memories of the glorious immediate past will cry in anguish about 6-1 defeats to the worst team in the league. The Blackhawks will miss the playoffs for the first time since Toews became captain of the team. It is over and now it is time to rebuild. But it was good while it lasted.
This is the first article of a series called Closing The Gap, which will focus on the gap between the “Big 7” and “B-level” countries, and how it could be closed.
Every sport has certain countries that are always top competitors at the international level. Soccer has countries like Germany, England, Spain, Argentina and Brazil, while the USA, Dominican Republic and Cuba own baseball’s international stage.
The sport of hockey is said to have 7 main competitors for the international crown: Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In reality, there are only six; Slovakia hasn’t won gold since 2002, and are currently ranked as the world’s 11th best hockey power by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).
The countries behind the “Big 6” are commonly referred to as “B-level.” These countries are Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Belarus, Slovakia, France, Latvia, Denmark, Austria and South Korea.
If you follow international hockey, or have watched men’s hockey at a previous Olympics, you will have noticed the distinct gap between these two tiers of countries. If a B-level country managed to defeat a Big 6 hockey power, it would be a huge upset. Most games like that end in a blowout in favour of the traditional hockey power.
This talent gap leads to boring, lopsided games between Big 6 and B-level nations.
The recent World Junior Championship included 4 of those blowouts. On December 26, the United States defeated Denmark 9-0. A day later, Canada beat Slovakia 6-0, and then proceeded to light the lamp against Denmark the following day, winning by 8 goals. Switzerland lost 7-2 to Sweden that same day.
The abyss seperating the two tiers of international hockey causes one-sides contests like these, which lack the back and forth excitement of a game played between two near equal teams. It also generates repetitive tournaments with predictable outcomes. A B-level team has only won an international tournament once; Slovakia won in 2002, and they are sometimes considered to be in the top tier of hockey powers.
Closing the gap would be a huge step forward for international hockey. It would bring more exciting games, and less predictable final scores. Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to this problem, but it can be done. We’ll get into possible solutions in a later article; before we try to remedy the problem, we have to understand why it is happening first.
There are two main factors that could contribute to certain countries being better than others: development and popularity.
Development is how well a prospect is brought along, and how his game grows as he ages. Countries that develop players well give prospects the chance to hit their full potential. Countries with top notch minor and junior hockey programs should develop players well.
Canada is known to be one of the best countries in the world when it comes to player development. As a Canadian who grew up playing hockey, I am familiar with the Canadian minor hockey system.
In Canada, high level teams practice 3-4 times a week, with a game or two every 7 days as well. Teams are also given the chance to work with skills coaches, and in some cases, former NHLers. The best players will also often engage in one in one coaching with skills coaches on a regular basis. A lot of players will play spring hockey as well, and some participate in roller hockey leagues during the summer as well. Players are encouraged to hone their skills on their own time as well, working on shooting and stickhanding. Outdoor rinks are fixtures in the backyards of those serious about their NHL dreams. Young players spend a lot of time focusing on hockey throughout the whole year.
Essentially, in Canada, kids that are serious about hockey will play it year round, and spend a lot of their down time practicing.
At the junior level, players will spend most of their time outside of school focusing on hockey as well, and work with top notch coaches.
It is my understanding that the life of a serious young hockey player in most other countries would be similar, including the tier two nations.
The only notable difference would likely be the quality of the coaching. I’ll expand on this in the next article in this series.
It is no coincidence that the Big 6 countries are also the top 6 countries in terms of hockey playing population. If a large amount of people in a country play hockey, that country should produce more good hockey players than one that has fewer people playing the sport.
Top hockey countries have more hockey players than the B-level countries, meaning that there is a correlation between the amount of hockey players in a country and the quality of players coming from that country.
Essentially, this means that if hockey can become more popular in B-level countries, the amount of quality hockey players that come from that country should increase, shrinking the gap between those countries and the ones in the top tier.
It’s what seperates the great from the good, and the drivers from the driven.
In hockey, there are two main ways to individually generate offence: shooting or passing. Most players generally rely on one of the two to create oppurtunities, and can be seperated into two categories accordingly: players that typically rely on shooting are categorized as goal scorers, while the athletes with a pass first mentality are grouped as playmakers. But not everyone can be easily divided. The best players are harder to sort. The Connor McDavid’s and the Sidney Crosby’s, can’t be put into just one section, because they excel at both. These players, commonly referred to as dual-threats, are the elite, the ones that can drive a top scoring line, and carry the complimentary player’s that do fit into those two categories.
Filip Zadina, ranked #3 for the 2018 NHL Draft, projects to be one of those sniper-playmaker combos.
Zadina is a great skater, and his hockey IQ is sky high, but his biggest goal scoring asset is his shot. He can snipe, both from a stationary position and on the rush. Zadina has 35 goals in 42 games this season, good for 0.83 goals per game. He generates plenty of shots from the shot, as evident from this shot map from Prospect-Stats, where all statistics and shot maps used in this post are from (as of Feb 11).
*Green squares are goals, orange squares are shots
The shots are mostly sprinkled around the slot area, meaning that Zadina puts himself in good spots to score. The slot is the most dangerous place on the ice. Shots from that area, referred to as “high danger shots,” go in just over 20% of the time, while medium (~9%) and low (~3%) danger shots go in far less often. This means that players that generate a lot of high danger shots should score more goals, and in most cases, they do.
Top 5, NHL 5v5 Goals-Sh/GP
- Nikita Kucherov-3.45
- Auston Matthews-3.06
- William Karlsson-2.16
- Alex Ovechkin-4.13
- Anders Lee-2.46
The more established three goal scorers (Kucherov, Matthews and Ovechkin), are all over 3 shots per game, while Karlsson and Lee, who are new to the top 5, are in the 2-3 range. This is a sign that they won’t become mainstays as top goal scorers. It’s more likely that they are just getting lucky, and a lot of their shots are going in right now. Getting plenty of shots is key to scoring plenty of goals, so players that don’t get a lot of shots are usually just riding luck and a hot streak. We’ll go with the established scorers, and say that the benchmark for a consistent scorer is 3 shots per game.
So far in the QMJHL this season, Zadina has 4.3, well over the benchmark. Obviously, it’s easier to get shots in the QMJHL than it is in the NHL, but even if he loses a shot a game somewhere during the transition, he’ll still be on par with the NHL’s top goal scorers in shots per game.
He’ll be on par with them in goals scored as well. The combination of speed, skill and smarts that he brings will be too good for him not to score 30+ goals a season.
Nikita Kucherov played his draft plus one season in the QMJHL, the same league that Filip Zadina is suiting up in in his draft year. A year older than Zadina, Kucherov scored 0.88 goals per game. Zadina has put up 0.8 so far this season, very similar, at a younger age. Zadina’s goal scoring statistics are on track with Kucherov, an elite goal scorer.
Goal scoring is only one part of a dual threat player. The other is playmaking, something that Zadina is nearly as good at as he is at scoring.
There are 3 key components of an elite NHL playmaker: vision, passing skill and the ability to open up passing lanes.
Vision is a player’s ability to find open teammates. Players with elite vision are able to find open linemates that don’t appear to be in their sightline. Zadina has that ability. He makes passes that leaves scouts wondering “How’d he see him?”
His overall passing ability is very good. He delivers crisp, tape to tape passes, and has a good understanding of the saucer pass. He knows how and when to elevate the puck, and he uses it to make passes when the defender has good stick positioning.
The future Czech star uses his patience and poise to wait for passing lanes to open up, and if they don’t, he does it himself, changing speeds, making sharp turns, and throwing in the occasional head fake to open up a cross ice pass.
He checks all the boxes of an elite playmaker, and barring a major developmental issue, he will be.
Filip Zadina has all the makings of a dual threat star, with elite goal scoring and playmaking ability. The Czech winger will be a star, and will have a huge impact on the NHL, the fortunes of the team that drafts him, and the Czech international hockey program. His combination of scoring and playmaking skill is rare, and the lucky team that drafts him will be thrilled to have that combo on their roster.
After the failure of the last NHL expansion, probably due to the refusal of the investment world to accept a $500 million expansion fee, Commissioner Gary Bettman publicly stated that the NHL is not pursuing expansion at the present time. But right now he has got potential expansion proposals crawling out of the woodwork. Seattle is almost certain to become the 32nd NHL team which finally balances the conferences and makes realignment possible, and at least 3 almost certain expansion/relocation cities, Quebec City, Houston, and Hartford have expressed active interest in getting an NHL franchise. (I’ll deal with these individually later.)
As mentioned many times in other articles, as early as 2010 when Bettman made a tour of the three cities who lost their franchises in the 1990s, Hartford, Quebec, and Winnipeg and offered them terms for readmission (fan base, proper arena, suitable ownership), the NHL was prepared to dramatically expand the league. At the time, the NHL had 30 teams, so their offer to readmit 3 cities meant that the NHL would have 33 teams, one more than the current 32 NFL limit. This amount of expansion implied that the NHL would also realign, probably into an NFL structure, though with 5 teams in each of the new 8 divisions, to the next symmetrical number of 40.
Unfortunately, an ownership crisis developed in Atlanta and Winnipeg had to be used to resolve the problem. Actually the NHL wanted an expansion team in Winnipeg, not a relocated Atlanta Thrashers. There is a similar problem today in Phoenix and a potential expansion city will probably have to be used to relocate the Coyotes. With the admission of Seattle, the problem of balancing the conferences is at last solved. It is easy to predict future NHL expansion: There will be four new eastern and four new western teams added (though there is the possibility of Nashville being shifted east) until the 40 team mark is reached.
Commissioner Bettman could not be more delighted at the way things are turning out for him; even his new Seattle investors have upped his expansion fee to $650 million. But at least one city is going to get a bargain-basement relocated team at less price and there are still lots of issues to be resolved.
1. There are lots of rumors about an arena crisis in Calgary. Actually it is about a pouty Flames ownership that wants its cake and eat it too. They want a new arena built (at taxpayer expense, not themselves paying for it) simply because the Saddledome is over 3 decades old. But the Saddledome is actually one of the larger (over 19,000 seats) and better arenas in the NHL. Just what is wrong with it, the Flames ownership won’t say. If they laid out what is inadequate, probably a cheaper renovation could be negotiated. Meanwhile the Flames ownership makes relocation threats, knowing full well that the Saddledome could probably carry them for at least another decade without any problems. Nobody wants to tear down the 86 year old Empire State Building. By accepting Seattle with its renovated 55 year old arena, how can the NHL refuse a cheaper offer of renovating the 34 year old Saddledome instead of building a costly and maybe unnecessary new arena? The only true NHL arena problem is in Phoenix.
2. The only thing stopping Quebec from getting a team is the ownership factor. The local Quebec market is now over 800,000 and the entire market stretching west half way to Montreal and also including all eastern Quebec, plus the 4 Maritime provinces is several million. The NHL also loves the new Videotron arena and gave it its blessing by awarding a World Cup exhibition game and allowing the Montreal Canadiens to play preseason games there. So the only objectionable factor is the owner. Pierre Karl Peladeau has made many enemies on the NHL Board by his public racist comments about Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson, his support of the Quebec separatist political party, and his general untrustworthiness. At the recent Centennial meetings in Montreal, Molson was seen publicly with Gary Bettman many times but Peladeau was as usual nowhere in sight. A suitable ownership bid from Quebec City means that the Nordiques return to the NHL tomorrow. Quebec is a prime candidate for the relocated Coyotes and it would not be surprising if the Coyotes come at the same time as two more western expansion cities (one probably Houston) get added to the league.
3. Since the NHL is ready to accept an old renovated arena in Seattle (55 years old) instead of a new arena, there should be no objections to Hartford renovating the XL Center which is 41 years old. The Seattle project at least is highly dubious because it will produce an arena that will make it the second smallest seating capacity in the NHL. For the money that they are planning to spend, it would be better if Seattle built a new, modern arena instead. The Hartford renovation must increase the seating capacity of the XL Center.
4. Bettman could not be more delighted that the Houston Rockets of the NBA were sold and now the market has a friendly arena owner in Tilman Fertitta. The NHL has long wanted Houston in the league to be a rival for Dallas and has regretted turning down the bungled attempt by the WHA Aeros in the 1970s to get in. Houston is the largest American city without NHL hockey and it is only a matter of time now, like Seattle, before it gets its franchise. Probably Bettman is only waiting for the token Seattle approval process to conclude before making a formal Houston expansion announcement. Given Bettman’s new policy of negotiating NHL expansion secretly instead of the traditional way of announcing a competition for expansion that failed so miserably last time when the NHL could only get Las Vegas, it might not be inaccurate to conclude that Houston has already been secretly accepted, a “done deal” like the ones that were being proclaimed on the Internet and in the press before the last expansion was announced.
5. The happiest development for Bettman is what the new Seattle expansion means. During the last disastrous Las Vegas expansion, the investment world told him and his $500 million expansion fee to take a hike. But the breach in the wall by Seattle gives Bettman the last laugh. He can now expand the NHL to 40 teams and who knows what the final expansion fee for the 40th team might be? Thanks to Seattle, he and the NHL are getting their cake and eating it too.
What are my predictions? The NHL is on its way to becoming a 40 team league within the next two decades in a realigned NFL structure, the only difference being that each division will have 5 teams instead of 4. There will be a few stopping points along the way. Right now I think this initial phase of expansion will temporarily halt at 34 teams before resuming once the new franchises get settled and consolidated. That means that Houston, if they find a suitable owner will be the next NHL team, and Quebec City, keeping the existing Arizona ownership which means Pierre Karl Peladeau is finally out of the picture, will get the Coyotes. Since the NHL wants to keep 2 balanced conferences, the only mystery is what other western American city will be Houston’s expansion partner. My guess is it will be one of Portland, San Diego, Oklahoma City or Kansas City. And our behind-the-scenes man, Bettman has already been negotiating with at least one of them, waiting to proclaim their chance, along with Houston to apply for an NHL franchise once the token Seattle approval process is finished.
Then after a few years the NHL will accept Hartford’s renovated arena and be forced to grit its teeth and tell the Calgary Flames to make some terms about a Saddledome renovation. By then other cities will be even more hungry for an NHL team. In Canada, once the Quebec City situation is cleared up, the next city will be second southern Ontario (probably Hamilton) or second Montreal. Whoever are the three western American city losers will be even more ripe for the taking. Milwaukee and San Francisco are building new arenas but they may be too small and too basketball friendly for the NHL’s liking. Saskatoon and Spokane are long term possibilities.
And NHL expansion will have repercussions outside of the league. MLB, envious and admiring at what the NHL doing, can’t wait to make Montreal and Portland its next expansion cities. And the NBA, also wanting to reach at least 32 teams and realign won’t be long following the other two leagues. For them, Seattle is the obvious western choice but they have to like what they are seeing in NHL Las Vegas. Perhaps a four team NBA expansion is on the horizon.
There may be other surprise bidders for an NHL team, right now unforseen. The only thing for certain is that a 40 team NHL within two decades is on the table. The questions to be settled are who, where, when, how much, and in what order.
Once again Gary Bettman does the right thing to a limited point. The success of this year’s return of the NHL playing regular season games in Europe – two games by Ottawa and Colorado – to a sold out crowd in Stockholm, Sweden, prompted the NHL to double its European investment next year. At this year’s All Star Game, Bettman took the opportunity to announce that Edmonton and New Jersey will play games in Stockholm next year, while the Winnipeg Jets will play the Florida Panthers in Helsinki, Finland.
It’s a good move by the NHL, not only recognizing the contributions from its European stars, but also with an eye to the future if one day a European branch of the NHL becomes feasible. Unlike the NFL which has staged too many games between the bottom of the barrel teams in London for the liking of British fans, the NHL is at least making an effort to send decent matches to Europe.
But Bettman’s choice of teams seem to be based on nationality, rather than current record. For Finnish fans, they get to see Patrik Laine of Winnipeg and Aleksander Barkov of Florida again. For Swedish fans, New Jersey and Edmonton have Marcus Johansson, Jesper Bratt, Adam Larsson, and Oscar Klefborn. Actually, if these games were based on what was really relevant, the story would be about Canada’s best young player, Connor McDavid, coming to Stockholm to play against his old Edmonton star teammate, Taylor Hall. Bettman is throwing that match-up in as almost icing on the cake.
Edmonton will also play a preseason game in Germany, and New Jersey will play one in Switzerland. All these games will increase the NHL’s popularity in Europe and enhance the game of hockey – except it still doesn’t deal with the heart of the problem that has been stunting the growth of hockey outside of the traditional “Big 7″ countries since before the Canada-USSR match of 1972. The main reason why hockey has not grown in popularity internationally is that no action has been taken to raise the standard of play in any country outside of the “big 7″. Over the past four decades, the NHL has hosted clinics, sent out-of-work NHL coaches, and now plays preseason and regular season games in Europe, but the quality of play in countries other than the “Big 7″ remains inferior.
Bettman himself recognized this problem when he revived the World Cup in 2016 and created two hybrid teams, Europe and North America to fill out his roster instead of inviting more national teams from other countries. Even Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team. Bettman did not want any boring mismatches between “Big 7″ countries and “B Level” teams as was seen at the recent World Junior Championships. But that decision means that quality hockey is confined to a meager seven countries. International hockey will never increase in stature until the quality of hockey is improved outside of the “Big 7″. In particular, there are more than a dozen “B Level” countries, immediately below the “Big 7″ who could really spread and enhance international hockey if their quality of play was raised to the level where they had a real chance to win medals in important international tournaments.
Which brings this article to the third part of Bettman’s important international announcements. The NHL will play exhibition games in China again. This is money talking. China is nowhere near the level of even the “B Level” countries, but it is the biggest market in the world and Bettman wants the NHL to tap into it. Playing preseason games there may help international hockey a tiny bit in the long term but nothing like raising up the quality of play in the “B Level” countries right now. But China’s market is more important to the NHL than the “B Levels”. The NHL won’t dare snub China the way they snubbed South Korea by pulling out of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The result is that we have the NHL Commissioner with the best of intentions doing many things right to help the growth of international hockey except the one thing that could help it the most, improving the standard of play below the “Big 7″, particularly in the large number of “B Level” countries, including South Korea. All the random, inconsistent, hodge podge efforts of the past four decades simply don’t work. In over 45 years, the “Big 7″ can’t even grow to a “Big 8″. There has to a concerted plan in place to improve the quality of international hockey. Until the NHL and the international powers that be recognize that the quality of play is a serious problem and needs to be dealt with, the growth of hockey will remain stunted. The NHL deserves a few pat on the backs for playing regular season games in Finland and Sweden, but they would deserve a few more accolades if they faced up to the main problem of international hockey and dealt effectively with it.